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Annie Hayes

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Focus On: HR Specialists – Quentin Colborn, HR Consultant

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Quentin Colborn

Redundancy provided Quentin Colborn, a seasoned HR professional with the opportunity to go solo and spearhead his own consultancy; in this feature Colborn tells HRZone about the daily ins and outs of life as a consultant and how handling mergers and acquisitions can be likened to the process of buying and selling a house.

Career history

While studying at Swansea, Colborn was appointed Deputy President of the Student Union. A dispute between the students and University employees sparked his interest in the political and procedural side of management and it was this experience that confounded his belief that HR was the right career move. The issue in this case was one that he was to face time and time again – failure to consult over changes.

He landed his first job in HR with an engineering company and soon moved onto work for a brewery in Edinburgh. The next 12 years brought more stability as Colborn remained with the RAC throughout this period working in a generalist capacity as personnel manager for the firm in Scotland, North East England and Northern Ireland.

Over time his experience involved into some more specialist positions. Amongst other successes, Colborn introduced job evaluation and employee surveys.

“I ended up doing a spell in employee relations which involved everything from contracts of employment, handbooks, communications and union involvement. I was then appointed Head of Employee Relations,” he says.

Going solo

In 1999 LEX acquired RAC and Colborn was duly made redundant. Far from being dispirited, however, Colborn saw that unemployment and a severance package presented a unique opportunity to go-it-alone and start up again this time with his own HR consultancy business.

“It wasn’t easy. I started the business in 2000 and it was tough, it always takes some time to break into the consultancy environment but eventually I landed all sorts of work and managed to establish a portfolio of smaller clients – mainly owner-managed businesses.”

QC People Management Ltd began to take off and the mix of small clients based close to his home-office in Bristol was soon complemented with other customers in London as well as some interim work with Lloyds TSB in their wealth management division together with a freelance project for MORI.

Colborn continued to work for a variety of clients including high-brow HR consultancy the Chiumento group and The Rubicon Corporation where after a spell of consultancy Colborn moved to Essex and took up the post of HR Director in 2002. Here he assisted the organisation in acquiring new businesses and managing its obligations under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE).

Mergers and acquisitions expertise

Colborn offers a wealth of experience in the mergers and acquisitions field.

He likens the due diligence process to the methods involved in buying and selling a house.

“When a business buys another firm, it is just like a house being bought. The due diligence process includes looking at the finances, linked to that is the sales pipeline, the IT infrastructure including how compatible it is and obviously the people side of things.”

The important thing notes Colborn, is to assess the potential liabilities of taking on another business.

“People might be transferring a huge redundancy package to your organisation for example.”

Among the other major factors Colborn mentions are issues that impact upon employability – staff turnover, the state of the local labour market, unemployment rates and competition for example. “What you are trying to do is look into the future to assess what the potential people issues could be further down the track.”

Contract negotiation

HR has a crucial role to play in contract negotiations, notes Colborn.

“You are protecting the business at this stage. You are looking at liabilities that may come with the transfer such as potential tribunal cases, issues of long term sickness and any significant previous commitments to staff.”

Managing the implementation phase

There are two key implementation phases according to Colborn.

These occur once the contracts have been swapped and agreed to.

1. Formal requirements: this may include transfers under TUPE
2. Communications: reassuring staff and gaining their commitment and building effective relationships.

A smooth transition phase during a TUPE transfer is essential if a business is going to ensure a consistency in service during the change period and maintain morale while keeping on top of staff turnover, absence and motivation levels.

Skills

Considering the kind of skills required to handle a merger or acquisition from an HR perspective, Colborn points to a good understanding of HR together with an ability to understand the implications of actions as ‘must haves.’

Consultants must also be competent in analysing contracts, practices and procedures.

“You really have to be able to see the bigger picture and need to understand how one thing fits in with the next.”

Why HR consultancy?

Colborn enthuses that ‘digging into a business and finding out how it works’ is one of the most interesting elements of HR consultancy.

The value-add of being faced with a problem and finding a solution is part and parcel of the role and a huge contributor to job satisfaction.

“It’s like walking into a kitchen and throwing open the cupboards, you’re never quite sure what you’ll find.”

The element of surprise and being faced with new situations and challenges is very much a part of the attraction of this type of work.

Why not HR consultancy?

The tedium of paper-pushing and administration is a part of the job that Colborn doesn’t relish. The burden of red-tape adds to this and the number of contracts that have to be analysed and chewed over during due diligence can be a bind.

“It can be tedious but it has to be done,” says Colborn.

Another hurdle for start-up consultancies like QC People Management Ltd is establishing a brand. Persuading clients that smaller businesses can provide good value is often a challenge for new consultants.

“Some businesses won’t be happy until they are using a leading consultancy like KPMG for example, changing client perceptions can be tricky.”

Would-be consultants also have to be prepared for a ‘feast or famine’ existence, where the flow of work is unpredictable and sometimes potentially overwhelming.

Routes in

Experience is the key. Colborn advises would-be HR consultants to gain HR exposure within a corporate environment. Working within a number of different HR disciplines is also an advantage. Going-it-alone is often more fruitful for those who have an established background in the profession and have made a name for themselves in the market.

Keeping abreast of the changes is also important. Colborn sees the HR function as very much more business focused then when he started out in the profession, successful consultants he says, are those who become an integral part of the business, are on top of latest legislation changes and can be seen to bring added value to their clients.

See QC People Management Ltd for further details.

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Annie Hayes

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